Starks agrees just in time Ravens need plenty of help

August 05, 1998|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN COLUMNIST

He's going to sign in time.

Barely.

Had Duane Starks' pointless holdout lasted any longer, his value to the Ravens this season would have begun to diminish. A rookie cornerback needs training camp.

Now that he is going to sign, he has four exhibition games and month of practices to prepare for the regular season -- enough time to make up most of what he missed.

It's all up to Starks now, in other words.

If he proves to be the quality defensive back the Ravens say he is, he won't suffer for having held out of training camp for 16 days.

And if it turns out that he isn't the quality player they say he is, well, you can blame the Ravens' judgment in making him their first-round pick last April, but you can't blame the holdout.

Of course, the Ravens are in trouble if Starks isn't ready to contribute right away as a cornerback. Their alternative is to start DeRon Jenkins, a third-year player who has disappointed. Enough said.

Let's face it, they're going to lose games as it is because of their secondary, with or without Starks. They need all the talent they can muster back there.

That's why it was so surprising to see them piddle around and let this holdout last far longer than it needed to last.

Granted, Starks' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, was the more unreasonable of the two sides, claiming he wasn't going to settle for the parameters established by the contracts of the rookies drafted behind and in front of Starks.

Who was he kidding?

In the end, Starks' four-year deal fit right into the salary "slot" established by those other deals.

It could have been signed several weeks ago, basically.

There's certainly nothing in the terms to warrant a holdout that lasted this long and almost imperiled Starks' rookie season.

The Ravens will blame Rosenhaus, of course. But they deserve just as much blame, if not more. Many of this year's top rookies signed earlier than usual. Twenty-six of the 29 other first-round picks signed before Starks.

Leave it to the Ravens to find a way not to take advantage of those forgiving circumstances.

To their credit, they did stand their ground firmly. They didn't buckle and throw a bunch of money at Starks as the holdout lengthened and the pressure to sign him increased.

For the second year in a row, they played hardball with their top draft pick and got away with it.

It's hard to say who "won" these negotiations, which were governed by the NFL's hidebound slotting system. But the Ravens certainly didn't lose.

Rosenhaus? Well, he can claim a victory in the relatively short length of the deal, four years instead of five or six, meaning Starks will become a free agent sooner than later and, in theory, cash in.

But that's not a victory so much as a face-saver for Rosenhaus, a minor concession enabling

him to explain why Starks held out for so long.

Really, who cares?

The only thing that should matter to Starks now is that he was on the verge of having his NFL career start all wrong, way wrong, and he agreed to terms just in time.

As it is, he has missed enough of camp to ensure that he'll start the regular season as the nickel back, the extra defender who comes off the bench to play on obvious passing downs. Jenkins, who has shown some improvement in camp this year, will start.

But the Ravens drafted Starks with the intention of his becoming the cornerstone of their secondary, the left cornerback, the defender who covers the other team's premier receiver.

The sooner they can get him to that point, the better.

Rod Woodson is playing the left corner for now, but he'll move to the right corner and make way for the younger, faster Starks as soon as Starks is ready.

Will it happen this year? That's asking a lot, but many other rookie cornerbacks have started and thrived, so why can't Starks? Hey, Ravens owner Art Modell is the one who says all top draft picks have to start.

It can't happen soon enough with this top draft pick, provided he is the player they say he is.

On draft day, Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, said Starks was "a need player [who] fills a hole for us," and "a great cover corner, the best in the draft."

The Ravens badly need him to deliver on that promise.

They stopped fooling around and got him into camp just in time to keep him from limiting his usefulness this season.

Now it's up to him to prove them right.

Pub Date: 8/05/98

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